Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 21
Iris Holmes
Sibyl Johnston

[305] My mother, who is an artist, decided once to capture a spiderweb she found on our back porch: a huge, hexagonal, nearly symmetrical one. She wanted to make a painting out of it. She stained a board black, carefully knocked the spider out of its web, and succeeded in trapping the web on the board. Then she sprayed the whole thing to fix it and the web vanished, melted.

Notebook, August 24, 1982. I’m writing out on the patio today, watching Iris while Carolyn bicycles up the canyon to the lake and back.

It rained last night. Damp air swells the cottonwoods like a long breath, fills them with movement. The trees are breathing; the sounds—of them bending in their highest parts, three times taller than our cabins’ roofs, of the wing-shaped leaves touching one another—are like rain. And out on the river there is the visual silence, the motion and stillness of dragonflies over the water, their gray reflections coiling on its surface. (I think they shed their wings sometimes; I find broken ones, like small tear-shaped windowpanes, all over the ground.) Deeper, the river darkens [306] into vague colors that seem to be more than an effect of light. I can smell and nearly taste the water, leaves, soil, and now and then a rank breath or two: Carolyn and Robert’s goat or the Jerseys from the Madsens’ farm down the road.

Iris is propped across the table from me in a lawn chair, just sitting there. She’s wearing her pink topsiders today, her cords, and the rose-colored T-shirt Robert printed for her—”I Wear This Shirt, Therefore I Am”—and she’s wrapped in one of Carolyn’s hand-stitched quilts to ward off the canyon breeze, the river, and a relapse of pneumonia. My notebook, extra pens, and Diet Pepsi are on top of the table; from its round edge, between Iris and me, a spider dangles. It dropped several inches a minute ago—an almost freefall, an elastic pause like a yo-yo about to ascend. Now it twirls slowly, legs flexing like signing fingers.

Carolyn and Robert built this patio themselves from rocks they gathered farther up the canyon. The broken edges are fitted to other broken edges; the surface is uneven, and I wonder if Iris’s chair would tip if she slid to one side. Carolyn has wedged her in pretty tightly with the quilt and left me three phone numbers in case anything happens. Iris is easier to watch than most one-year-olds—She doesn’t run away, break things, or fall in the river—but then she’s also more difficult. She just sits. There’s a scar by her eye where one of the chickens ran over her once, just about the only time Carolyn ever left her on the ground.

The spider is building a web between the table’s top and leg. It’s one of many translucent orange spiders, the kind with round bellies like glass eyes, that make their webs in our windows and across our open door frames. The Puritans used spiders as metaphors for God. I’m a little afraid of them. When I moved out here I had my cabin fumigated—pointless. The next morning I found the first of many typed spider poems from Robert stuck on my front door:

What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small?
—Robert Frost

[306] Now I brush their webs away with my fingers or let them stay.

The spider gropes across the surface of the table like a blind hand.

Once, a year ago, Robert said he thought God was surrounded with paradox to keep us from approaching in any way but by faith.


The day Robert said that was in August of 1981, about a month after Iris’s birth. It was in the university bookstore, a modern flat building in which the shapes and proportions of things are noncommittal: neutral colors that leave no memory, fluorescent lighting that casts no shadows, a pale tile floor. And, behind the random noise of several hundred students buying fall textbooks, bland, aimless Muzak.

Across the room Robert was leafing through last week’s New Yorker. He saw me and began walking toward me. Robert is sturdy and angular, with wiry auburn hair, slate-blue eyes, and a pink-and-white face he doesn’t move much. He always speaks precisely, lingering a little on the consonants, which makes each sentence sound simple and self-evident.

We talked about our summers: I had visited home in Illinois; Robert and Carolyn had bought a goat; I had almost cut my hair; Carolyn had had her baby a month early and in a hospital rather than at home as they had planned. “How did it go?” I asked him. I hadn’t seen them since she was seven months pregnant.

The morning before I’d left for Illinois we’d sat together under the trees, Carolyn laughing, dangling a stick in the water with one hand, the other hand returning now and then near to her middle. I leaned toward her and placed my palm on her; through her flesh I felt pressure, an independent lump. I pulled my hand away. Carolyn smiled. “You’re funny, Sibyl.” We talked about names, labor, the advantages of natural childbirth. We watched the trees; the river; the dragonflies dipping suddenly, violently, over the water, halting, then dipping and swinging again into motion. Carolyn yawned, stretching, her arms strong and dark, the color and sheen of pecans, [308] the edges of her hair shining white for an instant in the sunlight. The trees slanted out over the river, their bark twisted like elephant’s skin around the heartwood. Shadows of the bright new leaves blurred and gently changed the light on Carolyn’s arms, her face and hair. She took a deep breath and sighed. The baby had begun to press against her lungs, she said, making her short of breath. Carolyn and Robert had not planned on a honeymoon baby; Robert was unemployed and they had no medical insurance. “I don’t know, Sibyl,” she said that morning. “I yell and yell at him about getting a job and he just sits there and takes it and then I’m even madder. I’ve decided to stop worrying about it. We’re getting by, I guess. We’ll just have to keep getting by after the baby comes.” She leaned back in her chair, looking up at the trees and the Kodak-blue Utah sky, one hand shading her eyes.

From inside we heard the sounds of Robert fixing breakfast. Carolyn smiled, leaning back in her chair. “Robert’s a good cook,” she said softly, her fingers caressing her belly. “And you get him between the sheets and he is the best.”

The screen door slammed; it was Robert with the breakfast tray. He placed it on the table between us, then pulled out a chair. “I have been remembering, Sibyl, the first time that Carolyn and I visited our midwife. The midwife put an electronic stethoscope on Carolyn’s abdomen, and we listened to our baby’s heartbeat.” He poured Carolyn some goat’s milk. “At first we heard only Carolyn’s body, but soon we heard a small sound that reminded me of a train. And this was our child’s heart.” He was silent for a moment, the white pitcher tipped in the air above his glass. “I could feel it in my soul. I think Carolyn had hoped I would react more visibly, and she might have felt disappointed.”

“Well,” Robert said now, slowly, “the birth was rather difficult.” He stopped, swallowed, glanced down at the floor. Then he continued. “Well, it seems the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck and she nearly asphyxiated. In fact, when she was born she had turned blue and her heart was not beating. Her Apgar scores were one and four.” He paused, looked at me. “Do you know what an Apgar score is?”

[309] “What?” I felt a dull chill. “Did—is she all right?”

“Oh, she lived. In fact, we took her out of the incubator today. She was in a coma for two weeks. Our doctor didn’t think she would survive. The nurses asked us whether we wanted to change Iris’s name so we could save it for our next baby. But Carolyn kept seeing her move. And now she’s breathing on her own.” Robert took a breath. “One of Iris’s doctors told us earlier this week that it looks like Iris’s brain was damaged during the birth. So we think she will probably be mentally retarded.” Robert cocked his head to one side, tapped two fingers against the wooden stair rail.

“But—Robert, that’s awful.”

Robert nodded. The skin around his lips and nose was white. Behind him, someone pushing a dolly of books was trying to get past us. Robert turned and we started down the stairs together.


Notebook, April 30, 1982, nine months later. Carolyn, Robert, Iris, and I are sitting by the river on the patio. We are drinking lemonade and I’m taking notes. I have permission to write about Iris: Carolyn said, “Just tell the truth. Tell it so Iris will say it’s the truth.” She believes we’ll all have to face Iris someday.

Robert’s garden is beginning to bloom: clover and herbs between the patio’s stones, patches of ferns, forget-me-nots, pink impatiens. Fuchsias in hanging baskets and begonias in two cutoff wooden barrels; marigolds and snapdragons around the house; creeping jennie, basket-of-gold. He’s built a roof on the chicken coop to protect his garden (and Iris) from the chickens—but now Carolyn’s dogs and my cats are warring through the ferns. Carolyn picks up the hose and squirts them, accidentally spraying Robert and me. “Carolyn!” Robert says. He’s next to her, holding Iris. Iris flushes, moves her hands, and arches her back. Carolyn turns off the water and bends over them. “I’m sorry, Iris.” Then she glances up at us. “See, she knows.” Iris is wearing the little bikini Carolyn tells me she surfs in, and the soft terry jacket Robert got her for an early first birthday present.

A bluegill hovers in the shallow water near the bank. The [310] river is full of fish—mostly carp, though. Carolyn is fishing now, trying to catch us breakfast. She can’t cast out very far because the trees hang too low over the water and the lines get tangled in them. She wears a loose Mexican dress, bright white with red, blue, and yellow flowers embroidered on the yoke. She’s gotten overweight since the birth. Her face is heart-shaped and freckled, her eyes sage green, her lashes invisibly blond. Her hair is straight and short and blond.

The bluegill flickers in shallow water, seeming to wait, now and then flicking to a different angle. Its shadow wavers on the sand. Robert drops a pebble into the water; the fish vanishes. Robert talks about planting anemones next year, about making a rock garden. He bounces Iris gently on his knee—an exercise designed to teach Iris how to hold up her head, or that she has a head. “Iris is a very strange child,” Robert remarks—although, since last summer, Robert and Carolyn have learned more about her: she is blind, her doctors informed them soon after the birth. She is quadriplegic and cerebral-palsied. She now receives Dilantin and phenobarbital several times a day to control otherwise nearly continuous epileptic seizures. Carolyn puts it in the food that she Osterizes and then, four times a day, pours into a plastic syringe with a long, thin tube attached. She carefully slides the tube down Iris’s throat and into her stomach—since Iris can’t swallow, she doesn’t gag—and slowly, bit by bit, pumps the food into her.

And one day last fall Carolyn said, “Iris is deaf,” and clanged together an iron skillet and a Revere Ware pan till the windowpanes rattled against the sills; Iris didn’t move. And—though there may never be a way to test this—all of Iris’s doctors now believe that her develpomental delay is much more than moderate, that only her brain stem functions. Robert and Carolyn have to control her body temperature, covering or uncovering her to keep it stable.

I closed my notebook as Carolyn began reeling in her fishing line. The water wrinkled into a V, which jerked toward us. “I still can’t get a picture in my mind of how she’s going to be ten years [311] from now, or twenty years from now, if she lives that long,” Carolyn said. The red-and-white bob swung in a shortening arc, flinging water on all of us. Carolyn’s hand followed it back and forth, then grasped it and moved along the line down to the hook. She leaned over to pick up a worm from the can by her feet. “Iris’s first neonatalogist just asked us how much she’d changed in the three months since she’d been born, and we said not at all, and he said, ‘Well, that’s the kind of thing you can expect from her—how she’s grown in the last three months is a reflection of how she’s going to grow.”’ She put the worm on the hook. “Iris’s neonatalogist just said, ‘It’s all a question of time, how much time will pass before you find out for sure.'” Carolyn cast out again. The fishing line gleamed, a long, silver bow like the strands of spiderweb that float by randomly sometimes when the sun is out.

“Well, I think we’ve found out for sure,” Robert said, shifting position. The aluminum chair squeaked.

“We don’t think she’ll progress now,” agreed Carolyn. Supporting the fishing rod between her knees and leaning her free arm on Robert’s shoulder, she played with Iris’s hair, flattening a lock between two fingers and pulling gently. The sunlight turned it silvery-white. Carolyn looked up, her voice quickening. “But you just never know; you just never know how much control she’s going to get with her hands or with her swallowing, or with anything, because it’s just all time. That’s the hard part.” She raised her eyebrows apologetically. “Iris is just Iris and that’s how she’s going to be, I guess.” Her hand followed the curve of Iris’s cheek, gently, to her delicate chin. “The first months we were always looking for things to show that she was going to come out of it—for her all of a sudden to respond a little to sound, or to us visually …” She smiled quickly, touched a fingertip to Iris’s wrist. “She does respond tactilely, though—if you touch her she knows, and she wakes up.” She trailed the finger up the inside of Iris’s arm; Iris’s expression changed: she blinked slowly, her mouth moved a little—almost a suck—and her arms flailed toward her face. Carolyn straightened and picked up the fishing rod again. “That’s the hardest part—parents always try to get answers and [312] doctors don’t give answers. They just say, ‘Well, you have to give her a little time, just give her a little time… …”

She stared steadily at the plastic ball on the water, her face still, and rested the fishing rod on her knees. Robert shifted Iris on his lap and put a hand on the back of Carolyn’s chair. She turned away from him to tell me about the specialist they had visited the day before. Her voice was a little uneven. “Sibyl, a perfect Apgar score is ten and ten. That doctor said a score of one and four is no accident.”

Robert and I looked at her. “What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, twenty minutes before Iris was born the nurse couldn’t find a heartbeat ……” Now her voice was slipping, falling across sharp edges, diminishing. She paused, then said quietly, “She was born in secondary apnea—no pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing …” She ticked it all off on her fingers. “The cord was asphyxiating her all that time. Now why didn’t somebody do something?” She sat still for a minute, then leaned back in her chair. “That doctor says he doesn’t believe in the ‘brotherhood of doctors.’ He says he thinks we ought to sue.”

Robert jiggled Iris some more, looking out over the river, his face expressionless. Iris sat like a thin Buddha cradled on her father’s lap, blond brows gleaming in the sunlight. Her pupils seemed to focus, then slid over to one side; doctors had said she could perceive some light. She grasped Robert’s fingers—a reflex.

Maybe they just want to blame someone, I wrote in the margin of my notebook. “Well, I guess you’re lucky she didn’t die,” I said.

Carolyn and Robert looked at me for a moment, like they hadn’t heard me. “She did die,” Carolyn said.

Maybe they need to blame someone.


I spent much of that spring with Carolyn and Iris, lying across Robert and Carolyn’s bed, eating creetchies (Carolyn’s name for Rice Krispies Treats, on which she and I binged every week or so), looking up through the windows at the trees and the changing sky, talking, putting off other things, taking notes for my book.

The bedroom walls needed replastering; this was the unfinished, usually unseen part of the Holmeses’ house. The walls were lined [313] with cardboard boxes full of books, stored foods, and back issues of the underground Mormon newsletter Robert edited.

“I had a dream about Iris,” I said one day. A water spider moved on the wall behind Carolyn and Iris, and another up in one of the corners. Carolyn had moved the canary in his three-storied bamboo cage over near the window. I pulled off a piece of creetchie, twisting it to sever the gooey strands of marshmallow. “I dreamed she learned to talk. And I remember, I thought, who would ever have expected her to do that?”

Carolyn shifted from her stomach to her side, leaning her head on her arm and stroking Iris’s hand. “People dream about Iris,” she said. The pitch of her voice drifted down as she spoke, like a sigh or a sound dying out or something falling. “One time Robert dreamed Iris smiled at him.” She propped herself up on one elbow and her face and voice became animated, as if her words were weapons against something: Iris’s newest physical therapist, she said, told her Iris’s arching her back and stretching when she was uncomfortable was not a cortical brain function—not any kind of communication after all, “Because as far as we know, Iris’s cortex doesn’t send out any signals”—but a reflex that should have come and gone and come again by now.

“So maybe she doesn’t know we’re out here after all?”

Carolyn shrugged, shook her head, smiled a little. “And the latest theory is that this reflex will block her from developing other reflexes—like swallowing—end it will overbuild her back muscles so sooner or later, if we can’t stop her, she’ll be stuck that way.”

Like the older C.P. victims you see in wheelchairs, their backs curved the wrong way like bows, I thought. That would be bad for Iris: her prettiness was an asset. Any person, therapist or not, would be warmer and more patient with a blue-and-silver baby like Iris than with others, who looked as bad off as they were.

Outside, the cottonwoods stirred and glittered. The sky was white. A few raindrops hit the windowpanes. I got up and closed the windows; the canary hopped from one perch to another. Carolyn sat up, leaned back against the headboard. She took Iris under the arms, supporting her head so it wouldn’t loll and arranging [314] her in her lap, talking to her in a lilting, penetrating voice. Iris’s hearing aid whistled; Carolyn adjusted it. The canary began to sing, an intense, quivering coloratura. Carolyn watched it absentmindedly. “I’m supposed to hold her like this to keep her from extending, for as long as I can every day.” She smiled and shook her head again. “Poor Iris. But I feel guilty whenever I’m not doing it …” She folded Iris’s legs up tailor style, holding the ankles with one hand, then gently pushed Iris’s head forward with the other hand. Carolyn’s fingers were long and straight, her palms wide. Her hands looked delicate and strong. Her wrists were fleshy. She had gained about forty pounds in the year or so since Iris’s birth; now she moved like a pregnant woman again, aware of extra flesh that in some way was not part of her. I could see the outlines of bones in the back of her hand as Iris tensed and strained against her palm. Iris’s neck reddened. Her arms came up and flailed slightly. Carolyn grabbed them, then hugged her close. “See? She hates it!” She sighed and leaned back against the headboard, still holding Iris like that, trying to hide her hopefulness. We watched the rain as it washed over the window, bending the landscape. “I think when I go visit my mom this summer I’ll get a permanent,” Carolyn said. “You know—curly all over?” She laughed. “Robert says I’ll look like Harpo.” She tilted her head a little to one side and smiled at me again. I thought of Robert smiling across the table at the humanities banquet this past March, discussing Camus’s The Stranger over lime meringue pie and twirly vanilla cookies: “The meaning of the cliff is in not jumping,” he had said. Meticulously, he had scraped the meringue off the lime jello with his fork.

Carolyn continued: she was not happy with what I’d written so far, she said. “You make it sound like I don’t love Iris.” She handed her to me, showed me how to hold her, then talked about her dying, watching me. “I just can’t think of Iris’s body being without her. Can you?”

Can I? I thought. “I don’t know.”

“You should spend some time with retarded children—do some volunteer work or something. It would help your book a lot.” I smiled. She reached over and took Iris back, then laughed. “Boy, [315] Sibyl, it’s a good thing we’re friends.”

I agreed politely. “I guess it’s hard for me to really feel a lot of these things,” I said. At home I had three books of index cards filled with details and ideas about Iris. I had been putting off sorting them because every time I tried, I wound up overwhelmed, in tears. Now the thought crossed my mind again that maybe I had better just toss them all. This isn’t fiction, I thought.

Carolyn reached over to the old trunk beside the bed and picked up a glass picture frame containing photographs of Iris right after she was born. “You might be interested in these,” she said. Irony? I looked down at the pictures anyway as she handed them to me. I wrote in my notebook: Iris in intensive care, lying in a small white plastic box—isolette—ventilator taped over mouth, feeding tube up nose, pins in either side of chest to monitor heart, umbilical catheter in navel for testing oxygen in blood directly from heart. That must have hurt. And did anyone know if it hurt? Nameplate on isolette: Iris Holmes; 7/20/81, 4:29 a.m.; Reg. No. 1020127; Weight: 5½; Feeding: B; pink-and-blue cartoon of stork with baby sliding down one leg. Carolyn holding Iris; Robert masked and holding Iris for the first time. Iris’s eyelids are lavender. Her fingernails are transparent, like little bits of waxed paper. Carolyn and Robert touching Iris through an opening in the isolette; Carolyn’s father holding Iris.

When I looked up Carolyn was still staring at me. “It wasn’t easy holding her, because of all those tubes,” she said. “She was hard to hold.”

Carolyn leaned to one side and looked out the window at the river, which was fifteen feet from the house and rising. “If this rain doesn’t stop, our landlord says the river is going to overflow its banks and wash us right out of the canyon.” Behind her the spider minced delicately along the top of the headboard. The landlord had advised all of us to get some sandbags for that spring.

Carolyn talked on: a box of fifty unreusable plastic tubes for feeding Iris cost $75. Robert had a job interview with Mervyn’s that week—a promotional writing job that could take them anywhere in the country, but probably to Texas. Carolyn didn’t want to go to [316] Texas—”But honestly, I don’t know how we’re going to put food on the table.” She’s asking for something, I thought: what? Robert had been job hunting off and on since before Iris was born. Carolyn, Robert, and Iris lived off the Social Security checks Iris got because she was blind. And nearly every week someone—an acquaintance from church or a friend of the family—left groceries on their doorstep. Carolyn was grateful. “When Iris is not alive we’ll be able to do anything we want, but right now we have to find a job with a good insurance policy.” She tilted her head, touched her forehead lightly with one finger, then stroked Iris’s hair again.

Everything was blurred green through the wet glass. Crocuses were shooting up in the lawn. We both hoped Peg, the Holmeses’ German shepherd, wouldn’t destroy them before they bloomed. Carolyn jiggled Iris, who was breathing hoarsely, then pulled a plastic tube out of Iris’s diaper bag and slid it down her throat. I imagined the pain of something hard and foreign in my throat, my chest. The tube was attached to a plastic vial, from which protruded another tube, which Carolyn put in her mouth and sucked. There was a sound like the dregs of a milkshake, and the vial began to fill with mucus. Carolyn held the vial carefully upright to avoid getting a mouthful. The mucus trap was one way of preventing pneumonia or strangulation. But I still couldn’t use it; the last time I’d tried I’d gagged because of the way the air tasted. Carolyn had smiled: “You’re not much help, Sibyl.”

“You know,” she said now, looking up from the tube, “before, whenever something really bad happened, I just figured it would work out, you know, it would get better.” She carefully pulled the tube out of Iris’s throat and stuck it back in the pink canvas diaper bag. “Iris is a bad thing that didn’t get better.”

She touched the thin strands of white linen thread in the bedspread, tracing their small repeating square pattern with one finger. “A friend of Robert’s mom crocheted this as a wedding present.”

“It must have taken her years.”

Carolyn leaned forward to look at the pattern. “You know what, though?” she said. “It seems to me more and more that I’m not a [317] normal person.” She looked up. “Iris is my salvation from normalcy.” Suddenly the spider dropped from the headboard onto her hand. She jerked, shook it off, releasing Iris, who began to arch backward. Carolyn turned her onto her stomach, folding her arms so her face wouldn’t press into the bedspread, then took a magazine from the trunk that sat by the bed, aimed, and smashed the spider. “They bite Iris,” she said, replacing the magazine. “I pick her up in the morning and she’s got red marks all over her and I feel awful.”

There was not much anyone who lived near the river could do about the spiders, though; in my cabin one crouched permanently in the corner above my typewriter—every time I got rid of him, he came back again. I usually picked them up in a glass and took them outdoors; Robert left them; and Carolyn smashed them. And at night when I turned out my lights I would usually see three or four more silhouetted at my bedroom window, spinning. Their webs were always empty in the morning and by afternoon had been blown apart by the breezes.

Carolyn got up to go mix Iris’s dinner.


Notebook, July, 1982, a few months later. Carolyn bathing Iris, Iris’s body long, her limbs long and soft and undeveloped. The muscles in her back and abdomen hard, defined. Her feet new, pink and white, never walked on, their soles soft and puffy like little pin cushions. I take hold of one and it feels like a hand.

Carolyn lays her naked on the kitchen counter with a folded towel for a pillow, rests one hand on Iris’s chest, and turns to close the window. Carolyn wears one of Robert’s flannel shirts. Her hair, which is longer now, is tied back with a scarf. Iris’s arms are bent at the elbow, her hands in fists moving a little in the air around her head. Her legs are crossed at the ankle, her long toes clenched like fingers. (With her clenched toes, Iris can wear thongs better than a lot of one-year-olds, and she owns several pairs, which she often wears with her bikini.) I try to imagine cool ceramic tiles on my back, no sight, no sound. No consciousness? Not sounds or colors or shapes, certainly. [318] Tastes? Smells, sensations—and a little light. And does she know she perceives that much? Carolyn says blind people are not more sensitive in other ways—they just learn to do without. Iris’s eyes, cloudy, impenetrable, slate-blue, are fixed—focused?—and half open. Carolyn strokes Iris’s palm with her finger, gently calls her name. Then, slowly, she caresses each limb and Iris’s chest, first with burlap, then with a piece of rabbit skin, then with ice. She hopes to teach Iris that she has legs, arms, a face. Iris pulls away from the ice, but with her whole body—possibly a reflex. Her face reddens and contorts. Both arms stiffen and she seems to look slowly around. “Oh …!” says Carolyn, her hand in the air near her cheek. “Is she going to do it?” She waves her hand. “Robert!” Iris’s mouth opens and she cries—a short exhalation that sounds like a backward gasp. We all applaud her in the morning sunlight. This could become a problem for Iris: everyone loves it so much when she’s displeased.

Carolyn squeezes her, touches her cheek to her belly, kisses her on the navel. ”You are Ms. Cute!” She picks her up. “Oooh”—through clenched teeth—”what a chunk!” Iris tenses at the water, her back rigidly curved, and Carolyn continues talking softly to her.

Carolyn’s kitchen faces east, so now, at ten in the morning, it’s filled with light. The water shines on Iris’s body and in the air, where it falls like another form of light when Carolyn lifts her hands out of the sink. She lathers up each of Iris’s legs, then turns her over. “Look at this,” she says. “Iris has the best bum.” She squeezes it, rubs the soap over the soft pink skin. Iris tenses, then relaxes. Carolyn turns her around again and sits her back in the water, cradling her head with one arm. Iris’s face reddens. She scowls.

After the bath Carolyn pours olive oil on her hands and rubs it into Iris’s skin. It works better than lotion, she says, because it’s not clammy. “Besides, I really believe the body can absorb things through the skin. It makes sense, doesn’t it? This has got to be good for her!” She holds Iris’s arm up by the hand, wraps [319] her oily fingers around it and massages it. She bends the arm at the elbow, the wrist, the finger joints—an exercise to keep Iris’s muscles from atrophying. The doctors say Iris is beginning to get contractures in her elbows, her wrists, her hips; Carolyn must exercise her to prevent her limbs from folding up like little birds’ wings. “See? She loves it! Look how loose she is!” Again she leans over her. “Mmm, smell her now!”

“Give the girl a pimiento,” says Robert.


Robert pushed open my screen door one night that August, letting in several big moths and—l hoped—no spiders. “Carolyn has just returned from her visit home and we were thinking, wouldn’t a Reuben sandwich be nice? And I said, well we must get Sibyl. She’ll never forgive us if we go for Reuben sandwiches without her. Want to come?”

Wells Drive Inn was looped in cursive on a pink-and-aqua aluminum sign outside the restaurant, Reuben Sandwich printed in black beneath it. Wells’s was a loose arrangement of brown-and-black obtuse angles. Inside, the walls were pine, stained to look like cedar and hung with macrame owls and planters.

“Diefenbachia,” Robert observed.

We ordered our sandwiches and picked up our Cokes from Mr. Wells, and Carolyn, taking Iris, made for the Ms. Pac Man machine in the corner near our table. She placed Iris in her carrier on the floor, then turned to the machine, deposited a quarter, and began jerking the lever up and down, back and forth, guiding Ms. Pac Man through the iridescent maze on the black screen. “So what kind of a job are you looking for?” I asked Robert, snapping the plastic lid off my Coke. A thin woman in an orange coat pushed open the door behind him, followed by two little boys.

“Well,” Robert said, watching them as they crossed to the counter, “I interviewed with a company the other day who wanted to hire an advertising copywriter.”

The thin woman leaned across the counter, talking to the cook as he grilled our sandwiches. Her children twisted the knobs on the Rubik’s Cube machine near Carolyn.

[320] “M-m-my name’s not Mike!” said one. “W-we changed names.”


“He’s sixty pounds now,” the woman told the cook. “I don’t think either one of us wants to carry that around—”

“M-my name’s Matt, y-your n-n-name’s—”

The woman looked around. “Matthew. Michael.” She glanced down at Iris.

One boy leaned away from the other, arching his back to look upside down at his mother. “When I grow up I’m going to change my name to Stan-ley.” Robert watched the little boy, almost smiling.

Carolyn’s postcard the week before had asked me whether Robert had found a job yet. That was the deal—he was supposed to be working by the time she and Iris returned from visiting Carolyn’s parents. I had never relayed the question. Robert had spent the week gardening, fishing, taking Peg for runs and the little boys from church for swimming lessons, visiting me, closing all the doors and windows, and listening to classical music full blast. In a way, I didn’t blame him—with a resume that included a B.A. in humanities, two years of assisting in the university’s international film program, five years of raising orchids, and the additional skill of goat milking, the only jobs he could get were the ones that would make him most miserable. And Iris’s bills were insurmountable anyway unless he found a job with insurance—again, the kind of job he didn’t want. He had swum up to my back porch the day before and hung there, talking about Carolyn’s visit home, writer’s block, the English department, his hair glossed flat and burgundy-gold in the streaks of light that fell through spaces in the trees and made shadowy light places on the river, places where you could see into the water. The sharp, pale little freckles on his arms and shoulders looked like they were being washed away, and the skin on his nose and his shoulders was turning pink. “One redhead to another,” I had said, “you’re going to burn.”

After a while the porch had gotten all wet where he hung on, there were goose bumps on his arms, and his lips looked purplish. He pushed off from the porch, treading water. His chest looked [321] whitish-green under the water and seemed to bend off at an odd angle before disappearing into the river.

Peg had gotten twisted up in her leash by the back door and started to whine. “Margaret, are you grieving?” said Robert, and began a sidestroke toward the shore to save her.

Ms. Pac Man bleeped and blurped. The freckled woman walked over to look in Iris’s carrier. “Pretty baby,” she said to Carolyn’s back.

Carolyn glanced over her shoulder, then returned quickly to the machine. “Damn! He got me!”

“When I grow up I’m going to change my name to Stan-ley.”

“So you’d be writing newspaper ads and stuff?” I asked.

“Well, yes, and probably composing letters and working on ad campaigns, that sort of …” After a moment, the rest of his breath came out in a sigh. Robert looked around the room. “Oh, hell,” he said. “I’m not looking for a job.”

“About four months?” the woman persisted, her finger in Iris’s hand.

Carolyn let go of the lever and shifted to the other foot. She looked up but did not turn around. “She’s a year.”

“Oh …”

Carolyn didn’t wait for the inevitable next question. She turned sharply from the machine and told the woman, whose face was now slack, as if waiting for a punch line or the end of an unfinishable sentence, “Cerebral palsy.”

Robert smiled calmly, his lips closed and his eyes wide open, looking at the woman and at Carolyn, who looked back at him. Mr. Wells called out our number, and Carolyn picked up Iris and went to get the sandwiches.

“Robert tell you we’re moving south?” she said after she put Iris down on the empty chair, distributed the sandwiches, and sat down herself. “Our lawyer says the case will be stronger if we can get it into a federal court, but the only way to do that is for one party to be living out of state. So we have to go by March first.”

“If we decide to move,” said Robert.

“Robert doesn’t want to leave the old homestead.”

[322] My sandwich was oily, tangy. Rye vapors rose in my throat and nose. I moved my straw around in the ice of my drink. “Why would federal court be better, Carolyn?”

“Oh, you know, he just thinks it’ll be more professional and quicker. And the county where the federal cases are tried is more liberal than this one, and he thinks a liberal jury’ll be in our favor. Besides, if we file here we’ll be attacking one of the city’s main employers and one of their most prominent doctors, and a good lawyer would use that against us. That’s why we have to move, basically. ”

And because here, Carolyn never wanted to take Iris out alone, she wanted a vacation from church and other people’s questions, she wanted to leave. In addition to the strangers who asked what was wrong with her baby, there were old friends she couldn’t face without breaking down; the welfare representative who wanted to see Iris because—we could only assume—she suspected Carolyn of child abuse; Carolyn’s obstetrician, who interpreted Iris’s problems and their causes differently than Carolyn did; and a long line of well-meaning visitors who almost invariably told Carolyn and Robert what special people they must be to have been given such a responsibility—to which Carolyn had begun responding as she had to me: “You can be special too. Why don’t you go volunteer to hold some little retarded babies for an hour a week?” There was Iris’s doctor, “the meanest pediatrician in the state,” who took one look at Iris and told Carolyn, “That kid’s brain is rotten.” Carolyn had had to find a place to pull over and cry on her way home from his office. There was Robert’s younger brother, just home from being a missionary in Argentina, who asked in complete innocence, “Well, why haven’t you healed her?” And there was the day Robert, in a sentimental mood, asked Carolyn, “But would you really want her any different?” Carolyn stopped what she was doing, stared at him, and then gasped, “Yes!” and started crying and couldn’t stop for half an hour. “I thought I’d finished that,” she apologized afterward.

On the other hand, there was the pharmacist who filled Iris’s prescriptions: “She just looked at me—like she knew everything about Iris—and said, ‘You take good care of that baby.’ I guess she [323] might have known a lot by what drugs we needed. But I don’t know—I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a baby like Iris.” And there was Carolyn and Robert’s attorney, “the toughest, most ruthless lawyer around—that’s why we got him,” whom Carolyn had disliked until once, when she couldn’t answer a question about the birth, he had said, “There’s no hurry. I lost a son last year in a plane crash.” There was Carolyn’s childbirth instructor, who had taken herbs and seen doctors and prayed throughout her pregnancy because—again—she was hemorrhaging, and whose baby had been born, brain-damaged, the same day as Iris, and then died. She had buried him where she could see the grave from her house, and now brought Carolyn a big bag of groceries once a month—always “anonymously.” There was Carolyn’s bishop, who had handed her a check for $1,600 to cover Iris’s latest hospital bill. And there was the fact that when all Iris’s other doctors had given up, her insensitive, unsympathetic pediatrician had pulled her through six bouts of pneumonia and never billed Carolyn.

My Coke left watery brown circles on the gold-flecked Formica table. “So you think for sure you want to leave?”

Carolyn glanced at Robert, who said nothing. “We’re not sure.” She pushed her chair back suddenly and walked toward the ladies’ room. “Back in a second.”

Robert placed both hands flat on the table and closed his eyes. “I would like to write a story,” he said, “about a couple who have a baby, and the baby is retarded, and so the parents wonder why, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, did that happen? But then they come to realize that it was the doctor’s fault. So they start believing in God again and attending church and praying that they will win their malpractice suit so they’ll be rich the rest of their lives. ” He opened his eyes and looked at me. Behind him, on the plate-glass window across the room, we were reflected in faint, colorless lines and planes, like ghosts on the night outside. Breakfast Is Coming, said the sign on the Hi-Spot across the street. Entrance was painted backwards on the door. Don’t bother, Robert, I thought; I’m already writing it.

Carolyn was back. “Rob, does Iris have dreams?” Robert moved [324] his eyes to look up at her. “No, really—what do you think she dreams about?”

“Angels,” said Robert.


Notebook, August 30, 1982. Carolyn has returned from her bike ride. She bends over, shakes her head and arms out, reaches for her toes. “Ohh,” she says, straightening. She pushes her hair back from her face, twisting it up off her neck, then lets it fall. The permanent is starting to grow out now; her hair is smooth and brown on top. Her face and neck are flushed, her freckles invisible. Her skin is damp, silvery at the edges in the late summer light. She picks Iris up, carrying her with one arm, and I follow her up the bank and through her back door. Inside, the air is still, warm, human-smelling. The phone is ringing. Carolyn’s Adidases scweech on the gray-painted floor as she turns on the cold water. “Don’t answer it,” she reminds me. She has been too exhausted lately to want to talk much. It keeps ringing. The water splatters on the porcelain, glassing around her fingers. When it is cold enough she fills two pewter mugs and hands me one. Then she walks into the living room to get Iris’s wheelchair—a fancy, $1,200 model with seat belts, a back that adjusts to her shoulder height and leg length, a footrest to keep her legs bent, pads to hold her back and head straight, restraints to keep her legs from scissoring. Two of its parts were especially made for Iris. The wheelchair was paid for by Welfare, is described by Robert as “the most expensive thing we own, practically,” and is rarely used because Carolyn is embarrassed by it: “I feel like putting a sign on the back: ‘Yes, she’s retarded.'” But the chair does hold Iris in the right position so Carolyn doesn’t have to, and she will be able to use it for years—maybe all her life.

Carolyn wheels Iris into the kitchen, then sits down across the square oak table from me. Its surface, waxed and unvarnished, is cool and smooth as skin. It absorbs and diffuses light rather than reflecting it. The phone stops ringing and Carolyn unplugs it. “Some woman from the Children’s Hospital called [325] last week to ask for a donation,” she tells me. They got to talking and the woman told Carolyn that her little boy was born with spina bifida. “She was so … cold,” Carolyn says. “She just rattled on and on about how her son would learn to control his bowels. And I’ll never forget—just before she hangs up she puts on this testimony-meeting voice and she says, ‘Carolyn, God doesn’t make mistakes.”’

Carolyn leans her elbows on the table for a moment. Then she whispers, “I wish somebody knew how I feel.” I think of Robert reading aloud by the river: “Behold, I cry out of wrong but I am not heard; I cry aloud, but there is no judgment.”

It is beginning to get dark. Fragments of the sunset float on the water, amorphous but stationary. Dark, vivid twigs, leaves, branches tangle against the sky. A heron passes, flying low along the water, slow-winged in the way that very large things are slow, legato, wing feathers gilded with sun. It follows the river, bending with it into the trees away from the road. Half of Iris’s face is in the light. Her mouth is a small curved shadow; her brow, her cheekbone, her chin cast shadows. Her legs, slender and swollen at the knee, are bent; she sits like a grown person in her chair, and for a moment I feel time passing; I can see Iris five, ten, twenty years from now—in this room, in this chair. She is nearly silent, her eyes half open and glaring sideways. We can hear her breathing. “People don’t see Iris,” I realize suddenly. “They only see what she means to them.”

Carolyn’s face doesn’t change. ‘”What does she mean to you?” she asks. She leans forward, rocking back and forth on her elbows. On the window behind her the spiders are beginning to spin.

Robert has said that Iris more than anyone is a prisoner of her body. Sitting in the darkening kitchen, I think, What does Iris mean? Her image on my retina? The bite she takes out of my vision of things? What should I make of her? “I guess Iris … embodies questions I can’t answer.”

Carolyn glances up at me, then takes a quick breath and looks around the room and down at the table, running her [326] fingers gently over the cool pewter mug. “Embodies questions?” she whispers.

I look at her hands, white on the rough metal cup in the last sunlight. “Carolyn, we’re just trying to protect ourselves—that’s really all.”

“But I can’t protect myself—I live with her.” She looks at me. “Have you ever tried to know?” It is nearly dark in the kitchen. There is only the faint gleaming of Iris’s wheelchair, the mugs, the windows. Carolyn pushes herself up from the table and turns away from me to fix Iris’s dinner.